Where Were You When You Heard About John Lennon?

Critics of research where consumers are asked to recall their experiences often point out that respondents have trouble remembering what they did, how they did it, or how it felt. And that can certainly be true. But it’s not a case of faulty memory on the part of the customers. More often, it’s that what is important to you, the marketer, just isn’t as important to the customer. What is a crucial experience for you to understand as a marketer isn’t crucial, or perhaps even relevant, to the person buying the product. You’ve made your best effort to surprise or delight that person, and yet they don’t remember the interaction at all. Why not?

Cast your own memory to a different situation…one where the message, the impact, and the experience are so crystal clear that feel like you can’t forget a single detail. For us, we can remember exactly what we were doing when we heard about John Lennon. We remember the sound of the radio. The smell of the room. What we were doing. Who was there. What makes us recall a moment or event so vividly?

In 1977, Brown and Kulik studied what they called “flashbulb memory”. While subsequent research has shown that many flashbulb memories were more common in negative events, and that they were far from precise, the level of retention was much higher for the emotional components of the experience, and anything that served to reinforce those emotions and aid recall of the respondent’s experiential story. These are the key components:

  1. Importance – The experience has to be important to the subject. If it is a routine activity that they typically completed with little thought, they aren’t likely to have good recall, or to build an emotional story around it. Conversely, an experience can be very important to a person, and have little importance to those around him or her. This is why your recall of your experience with the schoolyard bully may stay with you – it was important to you (even if it wasn’t important to her).
  2. Intensity – How intensely the individual feels their reaction at the time (as opposed to the consequence of the experience), the more likely they are to develop a snapshot in time, in their minds. Shock and awe, fear, pain, elation…all of these are intense emotions. Acceptance, resignation, or even interest…are not.
  3. Distinctiveness – The event has to be different – to stand out from the ongoing experience, or it won’t likely create a flashbulb memory. So the purchase of one can of soup in a long list of groceries is unlikely to stand out for a consumer as much as the experience of taking delivery of her first car.
  4. Personal involvement or proximity – Situations your customer has heard about just aren’t as likely to stick with them as events they’ve been involved with personally. The more their five senses have been involved, the more likely they are to remember the details and emotions of their experience. That’s why, while our recall of where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with on December 8, 1980 seems as clear as yesterday, we’re sure it can’t come close to the memories of those who were there.

So likewise, if you want your customer’s brand experience to be truly memorable, it needs to be important, intense, unique, and deeply personal.

Fondly remembering John Lennon,

Megann & Steve


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